North Korean leader Kim Jong Il consolidated communist rule. Czech leader Vaclav fought against corrupt communists. Yet they had some things in common, besides dying a week before Christmas. They both abandoned careers in the arts to become reluctant politicians, and they stabilized their respective countries during difficult times.
Kim Jong Il ruled in the shadow of his father, Kim Il Sung. He lacked his father’s charisma and credentials.
The younger Kim, who spent many years in the film industry, seemed more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. He was a half-hearted proponent of reform, backing some economic changes and then reversing himself. His chief interest, other than expanding his own huge film collection and enjoying the good life, was preserving the power of North Korea’s ruling class. He was, at heart, a deeply conservative figure, more comfortable with the tropes of Korean nationalism than with the slogans of revolutionary communism.
Kim prevented the country’s collapse through numerous catastrophes, maintained alliances with China and Russia, coaxed South Korea into significant economic investments, brought North Korea into the nuclear club, and kept Washington at arm’s length when other leaders suffered regime change at the hands of U.S. forces.
In the end, Kim Jong Il didn’t fundamentally change North Korea or offer an alternative economic or political system to rival that of China or South Korea. He’ll be remembered as a transitional figure between his ruthless father and a future that’s yet to be determined by his 28-year-old son and successor Kim Jong Eun.
A dissident playwright and essayist, Vaclav Havel brilliantly exposed the deceptions and stupidities of Czechoslovakia ‘s communist system. He spent time in jail. He helped nurture the small civil society that would prove so critical in 1989 in transforming not only his own country, but all of Eastern and Central Europe.
Havel became president of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989, a position that he claimed to have run for only reluctantly. But he quickly became accustomed to high office.
He effectively guided the country through the “velvet divorce” that produced the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He fulfilled his promise in 2004 to bring the Czech Republic into the European Union, and today its per capita GDP ranks below only Slovenia’s among the former communist countries of the region.
But when Havel tried to put his more stringent moral principles into practice, he discovered that the world was not quite ready for them, especially when it came to foreign policy. The new president invited the Dalai Lama to visit Czechoslovakia, thereby risking a severing of relations with Beijing. In January 1990, his Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier announced that his country would no longer export arms. And Havel’s Czechoslovakia proposed a new European security order that could replace NATO.
Ultimately, Havel’s team reversed itself on the arms export ban and came around to support NATO. Havel continued to speak out on Tibet and on behalf of Chinese dissidents. But the Czech Republic also made sure to maintain formal diplomatic relations with Beijing and court Chinese investment.
Havel stabilized his country without transforming politics as usual. He’ll be remembered more for what he did and wrote against the powerful elite than what he did when he himself was part of it.
The Cold War generation is passing away, both those who ruled from above and those who challenged from below. Let’s hope that the few remaining Cold War fault lines, from the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean peninsula to the line that still stubbornly separates Russia from the West, will follow.